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Just a cat.

Nito, my cat, died last week.

On Tuesday, I found myself alone in an exam room with his limp, sick body in the crook of my arm and his head under my chin and I spread out a beach towel on the metal table, so he wouldn’t be cold when he died. It’s funny, how you just automatically do those things. I’ve never thought of myself as maternal in the traditional sense, but there I was, unthinkingly smoothing the terrycloth out even though I was crying so hard that I could barely see.

And then I paused with my gigantic fourteen-pound cat, with the boneless weight of him, because this would be the last time I held him. There is something sacred in that heft, like the way your shoulder feels under a baby’s head or the way your thumbs feel hooked into the belt loops of someone you love, pulling them closer. I used to pick him up every time I came home, to greet that reassuring weight that belonged to me, that I had tended.

I looked down at his enormous paws, just dangling toward the ground–whether in illness or in trust, I don’t know, but to be honest, at that point, it was probably more of the former–and I can still see them when I close my eyes, in contrast against the white tiles. That is the last thing I saw before I relinquished him–not by watching him die, but by easing him onto the table and away from me.

That was good-bye, at least for me.

Then the vet came in, and I petted his head and told him what a good boy he was, and he died, and that was it. I walked blindly out of the office with his empty carrier and fumbled my way into the car while my sister stayed behind and paid the bill.

And when I got home, after I unlocked the door and almost said hello to him, I climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling for hours, and all I kept thinking was not Nito is dead or I’ll never see him again but just What now? What now? What now? because I already felt lost–not sad as one who has lost something very dear, but thunderstruck by baffled horror, as one whose shadow has been flayed off.

Terrible, yes. Painful, yes. But mainly, so disconcertingly goddamned impossible.

Oh, I know. He was just a cat. I don’t mind. I think that’s what makes an animal lover–we don’t mind you small. We don’t mind you stupid. We don’t mind you simple. We are humbled, rather than frustrated or scornful, at your ability to be all of those things. We know that you still have gifts to give, however unknowingly, and that it is our honor to receive them. If some of us do not have babies, it has less to do with how small and stupid and simple they are (as is the common misconception) and much more to do with the fact that babies don’t stay that way. Their lessons become tangled for us the bigger they get, convoluted, nonexistent. They become mysteries, as we are mysteries. You put them in our arms and we fear them, and sometimes even mourn them, not for what they are but for what they will be in fifty years.

But Nito, thankfully, was just a cat, and perfect at it, sitting on the top of the toilet tank with his tail curled neatly around his feet while I read in the tub, or resting against my ribs while I worked on manuscripts.

This is the end of his story, and his story wasn’t anything profound. But that is the art and the joy of being just a cat.

After he died, I stepped over sweatshirts that I thought were cats. I reached down to pet the air. I said hello to no one an embarrassing number of times upon unlocking my deadbolt and stepping into my house. I lay awake each night, crying, because I couldn’t remember how to power down without a purring cat to stay still for.

I’ll get a new cat in a few weeks, a month, I said. I shouldn’t do it now. I should wait. It makes more sense to wait.

I don’t think anyone believed me, which is why on Friday, after three days of pathetic foundering, I received a brisk phone call from my mother telling me to come down to Petsmart and sign for this cat she was going to get me. And I want to tell you I rolled out of bed and pulled on some pants because it is impossible to argue with my mother. But that’s not why I got up, not really.

I met him with a disproportionate amount of fear in my mouth, considering that a sock-footed, pink-nosed, gray-striped tabby cat is not typically a very intimidating sight. And the rest of the story goes the way it has gone every single time an animal needing a home has found its way into my lap.

I woke up this morning with a cat in my armpit, is what I’m telling you: head up under my chin, paws stretched across my chest, butt in the crook of my elbow.

He isn’t Nito, and he isn’t ever going to be Nito. He is just Winston.

I’m realizing all over again, though, that just is more than good enough.

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